Monday, June 18, 2012

The Jester (1845)

The Jester, Vol. I, No. 1, June 14, 1845, cover

by Richard Samuel West
Following The Pictorial Wag (1842), the second attempt at a comic weekly modeled after Punch was made in Boston in 1845. The publication was called The Jester and its first issue was dated June 14. It was published by Henry Llewellyn Williams, who had served as editor of his brothers Edward and George’s story paper Uncle Sam (1841-?) and its successor The Yankee (1843-?), before becoming a publisher in his own right. For a short time in the mid-1840s, adventure stories poured from his press, most of which were from the prolific pen of pot-boiler champion J.H. Ingraham. With money coming in from his fiction factory, he decided to test his luck with a humor magazine.

The first issue was a twelve part quarto, containing no advertising, not even for Williams’ book titles. Though Williams represented himself merely as the printer (“published, for the proprietors, by H.L. Williams”), the editorial offices were located in his printing establishment, so it is likely that Williams was not only the publisher and printer, but editor as well. In any event, no other name appears on the magazine. Even the artwork is anonymous.

In the prospectus, Williams declared that The Jester’s contents would be
“entirely original, both in letter press and embellishments, furnished expressly for this work, by the first authors and artists of the time. In these days of general Copydom, and distorted locality, The Jester deemeth it not too presumptuous to advance that he will be the first to cast off the second-hand garments of European literature, which however excellent when ‘worn in their newest gloss’ must perforce lose, not only much of their fashion, but of their freshness, from the circumstance of travel. He therefore, with a justifiable degree of pride, announceth that he will appear in a thoroughly new suit. Home manufacture, both in weft and woof. American in make, look and feeling!”
This squib was aimed at the Brothers Harper and their ilk, who were making a killing just then on pirating the works of European writers. To underline the point, the last ‘embellishment’ in the first issue is of a horse labeled “Mare Harper” calling for “cheap litter.” (There is a double pun here; eldest brother James Harper of the firm was at the time also serving as mayor of New York.)  

To promote the cause of home-grown literature, Williams trotted out his workhorse, J.H. Ingraham, publishing the first chapter of his serial ‘Paul Deverell: or, Two Judgments for one Crime’ in the first issue, and promising to follow it up with a serial by H.W. Herbert (“Frank Forester”).

The Jester, June 14, 1845, full-page cartoon

As to politics, The Jester declared “a strict impartial, but armed neutrality.” The full-page cartoon in the first issue kept that promise in as much as the cartoon expressed no opinion whatsoever. It showed two boxers, one labeled “America” and the other “John Bull” squaring off to fight over Oregon and Texas. It is awkwardly drawn and, as we have said, unsigned. The cover art, which is a fairly elaborate design, is clearly by a different and more skilled artist.

In addition to the first issue of The Jester, which is owned by the Boston Public Library, a copy of the third issue, dated June 28, 1845, resides at the New York Historical Society. We do not know if any more issues were published.  

The Pictorial Wag (1842). The Jester (1845). 

The following year Yankee Doodle (52 issues, NY: 1846-47) appeared, followed closely by Judy (13 issues, NY: 1846-47), The John-Donkey (38 issues, Phila: 1848), The Elephant (5 issues, NY: 1848), and The Bubble (2 issues, NY: 1849). These seven titles taken together constitute the earliest chapter in the history of American comic weeklies.

Late in the decade, H.L. Williams moved to New York City and appeared again as a publisher with his own version of The Yankee, a story paper, which had its debut on December 27, 1851. His son Henry Jr. became one of the most prolific story paper writers of his generation.

* Richard Samuel West’s new book ‘Iconoclast in Ink; The Political Cartoons of Jay N. “Ding” Darling’ can be purchased HERE.

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